Saturday 23 September 2017

Businesses owe €124m to councils for water bills

Paul Melia

Paul Melia

SCHOOLS and state agencies owe millions of euro in unpaid water charges to city and county councils.

The Irish Independent has learned that state-funded agencies owe more than €1.8m for water, putting massive strain on council coffers.

However, this is dwarfed by the €124m that businesses owe the local authorities across the State for water. This is despite councils promising a 'get tough' approach more than two years ago, when €90m in charges was outstanding.

One local authority -- Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown in Dublin -- is owed almost €500,000 and has allowed schools pay back the money in instalments.

Another, Limerick City, is owed a staggering €650,000 from state agencies -- including two neighbouring councils and the Office of Public Works (OPW).

The level of arrears is significant because the Government plans to introduce domestic charging by 2014. If councils cannot be paid by businesses and state agencies, collecting from households could prove difficult.

Survey

A survey of each local authority in the State found:

• Some €124m is owed in unpaid water bills to 28 councils.

• Dublin and Cork cities are owed more than €15m each.

• Another four authorities are owed more than €8m -- Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Wexford, Donegal and Clare.

• Carlow is owed the least: €565,000.

• Kilkenny is owed €2.1m -- but €400,000 of this is owed by schools and state agencies.

However, the amount owed by schools and state agencies is likely to be far higher. This is because few could specify the amounts owed by state-funded organisations.

Six councils -- Louth, Mayo, Offaly, South Tipperary, Westmeath and Sligo -- would not provide any information.

A spokesman for Limerick City Council said it provided water to the counties of Clare and Limerick, and that money was owed.

However, he said the amount was not outstanding for a long period of time. It had cut off four businesses at the end of last year that refused to pay, and had increased its collection rate.

The County and City Managers' Association said 584 businesses were disconnected in 2010, and that bills were often settled at the last minute when a crew arrived to disconnect.

"Many businesses are struggling to stay in business and as a consequence are delaying payment of water charges," a spokeswoman said.

"Local government needs to balance the efficient collection of charges against the reality of the current economic situation. This is particularly the case in relation to water charges, where the disconnection of a property can directly affect local businesses."

Arrears

The high level of arrears comes after a series of probes by the local government auditor found that in 2008 -- the most recent year for which figures are available -- councils were owed more than €90m in commercial water charges -- a sum that had trebled in just one year.

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said the Government was warned three years ago that schools would struggle to pay bills.

"In 2009, a 250-pupil school saw its annual bill almost double from €1,000 per year to €1,985. Even schools that reduced their usage saw their bills increase," a spokesman said.

"What is happening here is a classic failure to provide joined-up government. The Department of the Environment insists on raising revenue from schools at the very time the Department of Education cuts the funding to pay for it."

Over the weekend, Taoiseach Enda Kenny reiterated that water meters would soon be installed in every home in the country. He defended the new water charge, which will come on top of the new €100 household charge that kicked in yesterday, saying the money was needed to maintain infrastructure.

Irish Independent

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